Countdown to Singularity — “A Computer Model of the Human Brain Will Be Completed in 12 Years”

Blue-brain-project

"It's a new brain. The mammals needed it because they had to cope with parenthood, social interactions, complex cognitive functions. It was so successful an evolution from mouse to man it expanded about a thousand fold in terms of the numbers of units to produce this almost frightening organ. It is evolving at an enormous speed."

Henry Markram, Director, Project Blue Brain.


Dr. Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, has assembled a team of nine top European scientists to build a computer model of a human brain in 12 years, which is excellent news for fans of computer technology, neuroscience, and people who think that humans telling the machines what to do is totally backwards. The Blue Brain project was launched in 2005 and aims to reverse engineer the mammalian brain from laboratory data.

We reported in the past on the attempts of the Swiss Mind Brain Institute to simulate the neocortical column of the rat using an IBM Blue Gene machine with 10,000 processors, and they announced success of the first phase of their project.

Supercomputers at the Jülich Research Center near Cologne are earmarked to play a vital role in the research. Jülich neuroscientist Katrin Amunts has begun work on a detailed atlas of the brain that involves slicing one into 8,000 parts, which are then digitized with a scanner.

"We cannot keep on doing animal experiments forever," Markram told the audience at the TED Global Conference at Oxford, England. "There are two billion people on the planet affected by mental disorder," he told the audience. The project may give insights into new treatments."

They've successfully simulated the neocortical column of a rat -– only a fraction of a full brain, but they proved that you don't get to do world-shattering research when you settle for second-best by choosing one of the most complicated and vital pieces of any mammalian cortex.

They also proved that even world-class scientists still have to compete for funding, following up this amazing achievement with bold claims that the same process could simulate an entire rat brain within three years, and a human brain within twelve. 

Obviously a team that sat down one day and said "We're going to build a mind from scratch using better parts than nature did" is ambitious, but projecting an upgrade to human consciousness  from a 2 mm chunk of grey matter designed purely to think "eat garbage" and "carry Plague" within ten years?  That's enough to make Alexander the Great wave his hands and say "Hang on guys, aren't you setting your sights a little high?"

To anyone who's worked in science the reasons for these assertions are obvious: attention and funding.  And it's a travesty that they have to do so — they've achieved one of the most incredible advances in the last decade of neuroscience and the idea that they have to make that sound even cooler is insane: it's like inventing a perpetual motion machine and having to offer it in designer colors to get people interested.  Assuming they continue to get support for this little "One of the Greatest Achievements ever to be conceived of by Man" project, it will raise a critical question: How do they plan to get a human model?

The existing rat neocortical model is based on a huge amount of data from real working rat brains — or at least, brains that were working until the scientists got a hold of them.  Where the team ran into gaps in the existing data they cracked open rat skulls, extracted the brains, sliced them into wafers while keeping them alive and recorded their responses.  It isn't known whether they cackled maniacally while screaming "They said we were fools, but we'll show them, we'll show them ALL!" during this procedure, because  anybody who can slice a brain into strips while keeping it alive isn't someone you want to annoy with questions.

Those involved in the project sing its praises in work to understand the human brain, but it's only a matter of time until somebody thinks about making improvements. With the ability to simulate the effects of rewiring, drugs or external electric fields at an individual neuron level we can investigate enhancements (such as new senses, new cognitive modes or neuroelectric interfaces) without all the inconvenient "human rights violations" and "Crimes against humanity" such research normally entails.  We could improve our own minds — and since we'll have just invented a silicon model operating at computer speeds in a bulletproof shell, we'll have to.

The Daily Galaxy via dailymail.co.uk and kurzweilai.net

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